South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive, a leading tradeshow for startup brands and technology based in Austin, Texas, officially kicks off today, promising more than a week of tech news, product reveals, and appetite-whetting rumors about what Apple, Google, and other giants have up their sleeves for the coming year.
Whether you’re a tech nerd who wants stay up-to-date on the latest in industry news, or you’re attending the festival yourself and want to get a lay of the land before you touch down in Austin, you’ll need a source of information that offers insight, context, and overview. Unlike the mongrel stream of articles and social media posts that comprise most people’s knowledge of the tech world, these books by tech experts and thinkers take a look at the bigger picture, assimilating info from myriad sources, weighing in on trends, and generating predictions about how tech will come to shape our world in future.
Yes, that’s right: There’s still a place in our automatic-car-driven, drone-addled world for books!
In The New Digital Age, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen address some of the most pressing questions and concerns about technology’s growing dominance in our lives. How technology will affect national security and personal privacy, how third-world and developing-world nations will keep pace or fall behind, and what kind of crazy innovations we can expect are just some of the topics discussed. Coming from two executives at what is arguably the biggest and most advanced tech company in the world, this book—newly out in paperback—is one to pay attention to.
A one-time tech-world pioneer (he coined the term “virtual reality” and is considered to be the father of it), Jaron Lanier has become, in recent years, one of the industry’s staunchest critics. His book You Are Not a Gadget alerted readers to the way small engineering and design choices can determine the direction the world of culture and finance—both increasingly tech-dependent—will take, and how tech companies turn consumers and workers into unwitting corroborators of high-level decisions in which they play no part. (Lanier has warned that this system opens the way for totalitarian-esque activity.)
His latest, Who Owns the Future?, examines the increasingly important role digital technology plays in the flow and manipulation of money. One of his more sensational arguments is that “Siren Stevens” (his name for relatively small companies that control vast amounts of data, such as Facebook), helped sink the nation into a recession.
3. Big Data
We hear good and bad things about Big Data all the time: It helps the NSA to fight terrorism; it also helps retailers to learn way more about your spending habits than you’re probably comfortable with. However, most of us would have a hard time explaining in precise terms what Big Data really is. Even those who understand the concept are hungry for information about its potential benefits and risks. Big Data offers a general overview of the burgeoning business model, examines the ways it’s been used for both help and harm, and offers informed predictions about the consequences it will have for finance, government, and our personal lives in the future. Read this and you’ll come away a bona fide Big Data expert.
The term “machine age” was coined to describe the technological innovations of the 20th century, with its telephones, TVs, and early, house-sized computers. “The Second Machine Age,” argue authors Erik Byrnjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, looks more like a scene out of Minority Report, with drones, Google cars, Google glasses, and other remote-controlled tech. Their mostly optimistic book focuses on how the economy, built on outmoded infrastructural models, will adapt to the new tech economy. The authors also look at how professions will change, how government policy reform can ease the transition, and how educators can prepare the next generation of workers and innovators.
The rise of the tech industry—not only as a financial entity but also as a cultural phenomenon—rests on the promise of technological “solutionism”: that nearly every major societal dilemma, from terrorism and domestic crime to traffic jams and education disparity, can be “solved” by quantifying and manipulating data. In To Save Everything, Click Here, technology writer and researcher Evgeny Morozov contests this idea, arguing that the concept, while slickly appealing, simplifies the irreducible realities of liberal democracy and obfuscates problems that can’t be easily solved with tech. His book offers a sobering view of technology’s true potential, and advances a thesis that our machines are only as strong as the conscious, nuanced human beings who operate them.